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Op-Ed: The Disturbing Antecedents to Trump’s Nativism

Arnie Alpert spent decades as a community organizer/educator in NH movements for social justice and peace.  Officially retired since 2020, he keeps his hands (and feet) in the activist world while writing about past and present social movements.  He is also an InDepthNH columnist. 

Reading the news at bedtime can lead to a fitful night’s sleep.  So it was last Saturday when I first read accounts of Donald Trump’s speech at UNH, where he repeated his racist rhetoric about immigrants “poisoning the blood of America.” This was five weeks after his use of the term “vermin” to dehumanize his political adversaries at a Claremont campaign rally.  As many commentators noted, the phrases are like those used by Adolf Hitler against Jews before launching widespread campaigns of discrimination, imprisonment, and extermination. 

Trump’s nativism also echoes strains that go far back in American history, all the way to the beginning.  “Antialien enmity was part of the heritage of the colonial experiment,” according to historian David Bennett, an authority on nativist movements.   Catholics were an early target.  “In all of the colonies except Rhode Island, and to a lesser extent Pennsylvania, Catholics were denied virtually every civil or religious right,” according to historian Stephen L. Barry.   In New Hampshire, Catholics were constitutionally barred from holding office well into the 19th century.

Nineteenth century nativist sentiment peaked with the rise of the Know-Nothing movement in the 1850s following a wave of immigration that included many Irish and German Catholics.  Organized in secret societies and known as “Know Nothings” for their refusal to answer questions, the movement briefly gained political influence nationwide.   As Bennett recounts, Know-Nothing leaders gained followers by spreading fear and pledging to protect America from corruption.  Nativist riots targeting Irish churches and communities broke out in several cities, including Manchester, where St. Anne’s Church and Irish homes were attacked in 1854.

Nativism rose again in the early 20th Century when the fear of radical ideas was associated with hostility to immigrants.  In 1903, in the wake of the assassination of President William McKinley by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish-American anarchist, Congress voted to authorize the deportation of immigrants accused of being anarchists.  In 1917, according to historian Regan Schmidt, Congress “extended the anarchist provision of the 1903 act by making any alien, regardless of how long time he had resided in the US, deportable on the grounds of ‘advocating or teaching the unlawful destruction of property, or advocating or teaching anarchy or the overthrow by force or violence of the Government of the United States or of all forms of law or the assassination of public officials.’”

Congress amended the law again the following year to not only allow deportation of anarchists, but of anyone who was a member of a group deemed subversive.  “This was, in other words,” Schmidt said, “a ‘guilt by membership’ provision which meant that the authorities did not need to prove individual beliefs or actions but simply that the alien belonged to an anarchistic organization in order to arrest and deport him.”  Speech prohibitions were extended to native-born citizens, too, to suppress dissent against World War I.

In New Hampshire, federal authorities worked with legislators to criminalize radical advocacy and ban the publication, distribution, and possession of any material, including pictures, deemed to be of seditious intent.  The 28-state Palmer Raids of 1920 swept up eastern European immigrants in eight New Hampshire communities and targeted them for deportation, generally without warrants or any evidence of crimes.

The period was marked by the rise of organizations, sometimes identified with “100% Americanism,” which tied American patriotism to anti-immigrant ideology.  “As the postwar movement for one hundred per cent Americanism gathered momentum, the deportation of alien non-conformists became increasingly its most compelling objective,” wrote historian Stanley Coben, noting that politicians were quick to jump on board.

The 1920s also saw the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan throughout the country, including in New Hampshire.  Spreading from Maine to Rochester in 1923 and then expanding in the Seacoast and westward to Concord, Manchester, and Keene, the KKK grew by condemning immigration, Catholicism, alcohol, and politics they deemed “corrupt.”   According to Stephen Goetz, KKK recruiters had a “shrewd ability to translate social tensions into simplistic, easily understood platitudes.”  They found allies among conservative Protestants made uneasy by demographic and social changes.

David Bennett has called the nativist movements that have recurred throughout American history “the party of fear.”

Is any of this sounding familiar?

While the fear of “Reds” faded from the limelight into the quietly growing files of a young J. Edgar Hoover and the KKK lost influence for several decades, the political impact of nativism found expression in Congress.  By 1924, the nation had quotas aimed at reducing immigration from eastern and southern Europe, a total ban on Asian immigration, and a new federal agency, the Border Patrol. 

As Isabel Wilkerson has written, by the time Hitler established the Third Reich, he had “studied America from afar, both envying and admiring it, and attributed its achievements to its Aryan stock.”  He saw the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act and its genocidal wars against Native Americans as a model for Germany’s racial purification.  

While Donald Trump is thought to be an undisciplined thinker and speaker, there is every reason to believe he knows exactly what he’s doing by echoing words written by Adolf Hitler.  As Jack McCordick wrote in Vanity Fair after Trump’s Durham speech, “the Trump campaign’s xenophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric has surpassed even that of his 2016 campaign. The rhetorical escalation has been mirrored in the campaign’s policy proposals, with Trump vowing to execute an unprecedented crackdown on both legal and undocumented immigration if re-elected next year.”

Trump’s intentions are clear.  The question before us is whether New Hampshire voters will go along on this dangerous ride. 

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Trump is disqualified from the 2024 ballot. His campaign said it will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Source: InDepthNH.org